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CES: Digital Content Roils Media Landscape

"The proliferation of formats and the desire to interconnect everything ends up creating a mad scramble," says Analog Devices' Bill Bucklen.

MANHASSET, N.Y. — The many players in today's consumer electronics industry share a vision of digital entertainment content flowing easily across all manner of networked products. But delivering on that vision is the challenge for 2007 and beyond, thanks to a plethora of network and content-protection technologies.

"The proliferation of formats and the desire to interconnect everything ends up creating a mad scramble," said Bill Bucklen, a segment director for advanced TV at chip maker Analog Devices Inc.

As hundreds of companies and thousands of attendees crowd into Las Vegas for the Consumer Electronics Show next week, the big buzz will be on moving content from system to system and place to place. Peter Barrett, chief technology officer at Microsoft TV, calls this trend "building [the] connected-entertainment experience."

"We've been talking about this kind of content exchanging for years, and at this CES we'll see it materialize," said Jack Buser, director and worldwide technology evangelist at Dolby Laboratories Inc. (San Francisco). "People want this great entertainment, but they want it on their own terms. They want it wherever they are."

Two forces are driving the move to connect: Consumers are embracing broadband links to the Internet just as OEMs are delivering networked digital consumer products.

"As a result, there will be an enormous array of offerings to get content around the home," said Scott Smyers, vice president of network systems architecture at Sony Electronics Inc. and chairman of the Digital Living Network Alliance, a 300-member industry group pursuing interoperability in home networking.

Indeed, consumers are sharing digital entertainment content as never before. The rise of YouTube and other Internet sites based on user-generated videos and social networking is making that fact clear even for the traditional media-delivery types.

"Consumers want content exchange between mobile, Internet and broadcast," said Christos Lagomichos, corporate vice president for the home entertainment and displays group at STMicroelectronics.

The good news is that Internet Protocol is everywhere. "IP will be a key part of giving consumers more control and more choice in their entertainment--and we are just at the beginning," said Microsoft's Barrett.

The problem is that the various content, service and system owners all want a say about what IP networks the content rides on and what kind of content protection those nets use.

It's a heady mix of players including Hollywood studios; cable and satellite TV providers; cellular carriers; traditional telcos; consumer, computer and communications OEMs; and chip makers, among others. Every player in every industry is looking for its own silver bullet—an optimal software/hardware platform that gives its own content or devices the edge, and guarantees a piece of the action every time content is moved.

The complexity has spawned fragmentation in two core areas: home networks, where there are too many choices with no clear winners, and digital rights management, where there is little market momentum for anything beyond Microsoft's solution, used broadly in PCs, and Apple's FairPlay in the ubiquitous iPod.

Securing the content

Most observers believe the industry will struggle with an increasing number of proprietary digital rights management (DRM) schemes for a long time. However, many see the Windows Media DRM gaining momentum as a de facto standard due to its widespread use in PCs, a prospect some industry observers and consumer OEMs said they find "too frightening."

"We don't see progress in DRM standardization," said Lagomichos of ST. "There is no interoperability, because that's how service providers—such as satellite operators—want it to be, as they operate in a closed environment." But when it comes to PCs, "Microsoft's DRM is the most common DRM," he added.

"Microsoft is already way ahead of everyone else," concurred Richard Green, president and CEO at Cable Television Laboratories (Louisville, Colo.), an R&D consortium for cable operators. He does not see one DRM emerging anytime soon.

Menno Kleingeld, senior marketing director of set-top-box and home media devices for NXP Semiconductors, noted that Chinese manufacturers are organizing a DRM standard.

"There's no escaping" the fact that companies in the rest of the world will have no choice but to create a common DRM standard, Kleingeld said. "I am optimistic that something will happen. Whether it is in the next year is a bit unclear. But there is no choice, basically."

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